Friday, August 15, 2014

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick

In the first chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul warns about the consequences of unbelief, saying that those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” risk the sure wrath of God.

“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man…And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper...” (Romans 1:21-23, 28)

Paul goes on to say that such people are worthy of death, and yet they encourage others to follow their examples. I was reminded of this particular passage several times while reading Philip K. Dick’s last novel, “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.” The title character, an Episcopalian bishop, strikes the reader, to use James’ words from later in the New Testament, as a “double-minded man, unstable in all his ways,” much like the tumult of the wind-harassed waves.

In the mammoth and challenging “Exegesis of Philip K. Dick,” the author says that he conceived Archer as the “fool in Christ,” the kind of California figure one would recognize from the news over the past four decades, attracted to the scent of any passing intellectual fad. Angel Archer, our narrator and the bishop’s daughter-in-law, tells us early on that Archer will die, in effect, because he “mistrusted” Christ.  

The novel opens on Dec. 9, 1980, as Angel is one of millions of people around the world mourning the murder of John Lennon. It is the latest blow in her life, and provides the soundtrack for her delving back into the past. At various moments, we flash back and forth between 1980 and the previous decade.

There is an air of Marshall McLuhan in the book, as the concept of the medium occurs in several forms. Archer pulls books off his shelves to quote long passages, much longer than one would expect in a 250-page novel. No book gets quite the workout of the Bible. Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is referenced, as is Goethe’s “Faust.” The philosophy of Heidegger and Schopenhauer, Beethoven’s Fidelio, the music of the Beatles – the term “media” comes to mind. But medium also means the spiritual go-between practicing contact between the real world and the spiritual, and it can refer to the drugs our three main characters take. Dick is interested in vehicles – for images, ideas, even real vehicles, as a long conversation about cars makes apparent.  

The story catalyst is the moment Angel introduces her father-in-law to her feminist friend Kirsten, and the two begin having an affair. When we (along with Kirsten) meet Archer, he is a well-known spiritual figure, having marched with Martin Luther King Jr. But from the beginning, he comes off as a man in a hurry, chewing on one idea only long enough to provide a taste for the next one. Only one idea that Archer seems done with, though, is the divinity of Christ. Archer’s Christianity seems of the rationalist school, so much so that he is brought up on charges of heresy, which he survives.

This victory gives him hubris, which allows him to flout societal conventions by continuing his affair with Kirsten. It also inspires him to pursue a belief that Jesus’ teachings were not original, but had been stated about 200 years earlier in recently-discovered scrolls by an obscure Jewish sect, the Zadokites. Archer, though, does not retreat from the idea of Christ, but only from the traditional notion of Jesus. This leads him to seek out increasingly esoteric theories – such as whether the Eucharist is actually a mushroom that bestows on whomever consumes it eternal life. When he is asked why God has been “silent” for the last 2,000 years, he does not point to the appearance of Christ as God’s ultimate revelation. He simply says he doesn’t know.

Paul’s thought – that abandoning the anchor of the Gospel from an individual’s thought processes begins the process of drifting into madness – gets a workout in this novel. But Dick examines several forms of what Angel calls “the ferocity of madness,” turning the idea sideways, that faith itself may sometimes resemble madness. Angel, who is not a Christian, understands all too well what she sees happening in Archer’s life, as well as her own. She feels a vain self-satisfaction because she knows Bishop Archer, the celebrity, which keeps her unable to point out to him how he is slowly drifting toward becoming a discredited crank. It is somehow too much to ask for him to believe that a man claiming to be God's Son could return from the dead, but easy for him to embrace the idea that his own son is trying to communicate with him from beyond the grave:

“That this trying out of every possible idea to see if it would fit finally destroyed Tim Archer can’t be disputed. He tried out too many ideas, picked them up, examined them, used them for a while and then discarded them…some of the ideas, however, as if possessing a life of their own, came back around the far side of the barn and got him… The ideas did not work. They got him off the ground and then betrayed him and attacked him; they dumped him, in a sense, before he could dump them.”

Archer increasingly seems, to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, “Christ-haunted.” He needs Christ, but he has abandoned the familiar Savior concept and cannot focus on a replacement, as there is nothing big enough to fill that hole. We shouldn’t be surprised when we last see Archer in his corporeal form, lost in an Israeli desert, looking for the immortality promised in mushrooms, mistaking it for the Bread of Life. Whether anything will come after for him, strangely enough, requires faith.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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